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In Philadelphia, an Operatic Portrait of a Stepmother for the Ages

06.05.11
Corrado Rovaris, Tamara Mumford, Anthony Roth Costanzo, William Burden
The New York Times

By Steve Smith

PHILADELPHIA — Unsettling news from the financially struggling Philadelphia Orchestra, whose recent announcement of shortened seasons, a smaller ensemble and a populist programming agenda sent tremors of shock and dismay throughout the classical-music world, paints a bleak prognosis for progressive artistic initiatives here. But look at what’s going on in the city this month, and a different picture emerges. 

Now on offer from Bowerbird, an independent producer of interdisciplinary arts programs, is “American Sublime,” an ambitious weeklong sequence of concerts and lectures devoted to the late works of the composer Morton Feldman. Elsewhere the Crossing, a professional chamber choir, is presenting Month of Moderns, a three-concert series devoted to contemporary music.

And in the Perelman Theater, an intimate space at the Kimmel Center, just steps away from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s dimly regarded home at Verizon Hall, the Opera Company of Philadelphia has scored a substantial artistic coup with the American premiere of “Phaedra,” a compelling 2007 opera by Hans Werner Henze. Part of the company’s growing contemporary chamber-opera initiative, a new production directed by Robert B. Driver, opened on Friday night.

That this opera, an 80-minute setting of a German libretto by Christian Lehnert, exists at all is something of a miracle. Mr. Henze had announced that his previous opera, “L’Upupa,” or “The Hoopoe, and the Triumph of Filial Love” (2003), would be his last. Then, having completed most of the first act of “Phaedra” in 2005, Mr. Henze, already ailing, fell into a two-month coma, from which his recovery was uncertain.

Just what effect Mr. Henze’s illness had on “Phaedra” is open to conjecture. But the difference between the taut first act — a recounting of the tale of Phaedra, wife of the Minotaur slayer Theseus, and her forbidden love for her stepson, Hippolyt — and the dreamier second half, in which the slain Hippolyt is resurrected by Artemis and finally crowned king of the forest — is striking, even magical. That Hippolyt’s rebirth occurs in Nemi — the Italian grove that inspired James Frazer’s classic book on myth and religion “The Golden Bough” and close to Mr. Henze’s longtime home — seems more than coincidental.

From the opening exposition sung by the opera’s four principals — here the mezzo-soprano as Phaedra, the tenor Tamara MumfordWilliam Burden as Hippolyt, the soprano Elizabeth Reiter as Aphrodite and the countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Artemis — Mr. Henze deploys lean, shapely atonal lines in labyrinthine angles with architectural security. His writing for a 23-piece instrumental ensemble, gorgeously colored and pulsating with ritualistic percussion, suits the milieu and the vocal complement; Corrado Rovaris, the company’s music director, elicited a fine account from his players.

Hippolyt, for all the virile passion and consummate lyricism Mr. Burden brought to the role, is less a sympathetic character than a graphic presence: an aloof symbol of spotless chastity and unswerving devotion to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, portrayed with penetrating tone and a loopy flamboyance by Mr. Costanzo in a toga and platform sandals. As Aphrodite, the love goddess spurned by Hippolyt, Ms. Reiter fanned the flames of Phaedra’s desire with strident exhortations, delivered with a clarion peal.

The central role, at least in the first act, is that of Phaedra, and Ms. Mumford was revelatory. Vocally she was secure throughout her range, with dusky depths, ringing heights and chilling passages of half-sung sprechgesang. Ms. Mumford’s Phaedra, less a lustful monster than a victim of Aphrodite’s manipulations, was by turns achingly sympathetic and ravishingly sensuous.

Mr. Henze termed “Phaedra” a “concert-opera,” a designation suited to Mr. Driver’s stark conception. Behind a bare platform, austere photographic images were projected on a translucent screen, suffusing a stark black-and-white world in swirls of ambiguous gray. Shrewd set and lighting design by Philippe Amand derived maximal impact from minimal resources.

Mr. Henze’s music turns toward the fantastical in Act II, with fleeting hints of tonality, incursions of electronic sound fashioned by Francesco Antonioni, and subtle allusions to Britten and even Mozart. The staging followed suit: Hippolyt, reanimated in a dizzy tableau redolent of “Young Frankenstein” or “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” spends much of the act in a cage, as the leering, writhing Phaedra and Aphrodite try to lure him to the underworld.

The terse, urgent pacing of the first act dips somewhat during the contemplative and mystical doings of the second. But with the late arrival of Minotauros — Jeremy Milner, a sturdy bass — comes a glorious, life-affirming final ensemble hymn, which refocuses the blazing energy of this rich, beguiling and significant work.